In May I had the chance to be a co-presenter with Tracy Williams at the TRACKS symposium . “TRACKS is a national symposium that brings together community-engaged Indigenous and settler/immigrant artists who are collaborating to create art with, for and about community.” It also served as a kick off for Train of Thought– a cross-country tour by train, 20 stops, 2 months long!
How I wished I was on that train.
There is so much to say about what I experienced and learned; how my eyes were opened and my senses re calibrated. Those 5 days made me look up long enough to notice the importance of the work we are all doing in this varied field- and how much work there is yet to be done.
How do we co-exist gracefully and respectfully in this place together? Those that belong here and those that arrived?
How do we move beyond the shadow of colonialism, own up to the sense of entitlement we each carry with us?
I was in the best way possible, gently reminded that after 22 years in Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver), with 7 plus generations on Turtle Island, I am a guest. It was so wonderfully humbling to be surrounded by people who begin their introduction by stating their lineage to the land, to their family and sharing those stories they carry.
A couple of the notes I jotted down that struck me as important and worthy of future musing:
Memory is the mother of community. These words are the closing line of Sandy Cameron’s poem “100 Years of Struggle”, spoken by Leith Harris on day # 2 of the Big House. Sandy is an poet/historian/activist who was an inspiration for many in the Downtown Eastside’s community. These words were also the theme of the 2nd day’s Big House feast, dedicated to honoring gathering places of the Downtown Eastside that give us strength.
Coming out of a history of residential schools, bad policy and removal of rights and freedoms the community that grew between First Nation and non-native people has been obviously fraught with distrust and unease. Now we hopefully move forward in small increments, working together, rebuilding trust and shaping a new community of mutual respect. New memories are formed through hard work requiring much love and compassion. Some of us have taken this on and the symposium was so inspiring to hear stories of what has worked, what is happening, and the long-time commitment people have made to each other in their creative practices with community.
Part of my Work is getting out of the Way… Nancy Bleck said this in regards to her work with Aaron Nelson-Moody on the Uts’am: Witness arts and environment project. Such a simple was of framing the need to step back, and knowing when to do that! A wise woman Nancy, I work to remember this in the heat of the exciting moments of a project when I want to be in the middle of it all- yet sometimes that is the right time to step back….
Art is a way of plumbing the depths, going beneath the superficial surface of daily living... were sage words by jil weaving in response to dialogue around how the arts seems to often being leading in this kind of work- artists are going were politicians and government perhaps fears to tread? We often are the warriors to take on the societal grey areas where others may shy away.
And another spoken gem that seems worth holding onto is we don’t always have to be together to work together. Will Weigler and Krystal Cook both said it during their presentation about the project From the Heart. Will described how the Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (who wrote Decolonizing Methodologies) and other Maori writers have had a big influence on him. He learned that it is quite common in New Zealand to recognize that there is work the Maori and the Pākehā (European New Zealanders) need to do independently with their own people in parallel with or even sometimes in advance of working together.
Besides being a co-presenter at the panel, I was asked to be a “cultural sharer” at the Big House Feast that happened the three nights leading up to the symposium. Again, an incredible time full of music, dance, stories and sharing. I was asked to speak about the plants and community, and thought I would add in here my composed thoughts for sharing as many folks came up and told how much this resonated for them as they figure out their own place in the community.
Our Plant and human communities working together.
Right now as I look around this neighbourhood I see the stinging nettle is thigh high, the fireweed is up to my knees, flax seeds for linen have sprouted and new blackberry canes are up to chest height- harvesting of these fibres will begin in a few weeks time.
In the forest, birch bark harvesting season is well under way and early cedar bark harvest has begun. Both barks are stripped from trees in the spring when the tree will give up the bark easily.
This is the end of the time when willow whips stuck in the ground will root easily, as the ground now begins to dry out.
Weaving and making with what plants are available and at-hand is culturally universal, and the basic weaving techniques themselves cross all cultures.
What is culturally-specific is what is used in what way, based on what we have at hand, and what our cultural needs are.
There are many traditional plants that were here pre-contact used by the Coast Salish people, some perhaps unique to this region, others are plants that also grew in other regions and were also used by the people who lived around them.
New people came here and brought along the plants important to them for food, medicine or that had cultural significance. We need to always remember that plants live in communities the same as humans.
How we each get along with our neighbours, those growing near us, sharing resources, our space and how we communicate with each other defines if we are a participatory in a community or invasive.
Invasive plants are those introduced species not participating in a community but instead monopolizing and controlling the surrounding environment.
Introduced plants are not always invasive It’s how they participate in the community.
We are here and surrounded by all these plants, native, introduced and invasive. Many we have lost understanding for what their uses are. Together now, we can reconnect to the land, sharing what we know and rebuild that connection to the plant community through our collective human collaborations.
I myself am an introduced species, I chose to be here, to call this place home.
I also choose to work with those around me, to learn from others, to teach others and to share what I know openly with respect and compassion. I am grateful to be given this honour and to be here with each of you tonight.
In closing, there is a Squamish word I have just learned from Rebecca Duncan I would like to share. It represents who we are together, how our lines touch- connected to each other, to the land, to the plants and to our ancestors who were here before us. It requires a slurped sound in the side of the cheek- my apologies to the language holders present for my clumsy pronunciation.
eslhalha7kwhiws ( sounds like ES llth LaHa quahey-oos)
How our lines touch and are connected. Wow.
Rebecca Graham and I had the honour of engaging delegates at the Symposium to make shoes and boots with us. We have both been a little obsessed with weaving footwear of late- but these were special. This was footwear that would travel by train across the country- all the way to the East coast of Canada. Rebecca and I collaborated on the what and why and how for both pairs beforehand, and here is the frame work we decided to introduce….
A pair to be completed before the rain pulled out of the station:
West Coast Footprint:
Spruce roots from Haida Gwaii, cedar bark from Squamish Territory, and other native and settler species from Vancouver’s interstitial zones bring their own character to the form of classic oxfords. We hope that these shoes become a part of the disembarking ritual at each stop across the country….
Cedar bark from the west coast and birch bark from the east coast form the foundation of these boots, but the weaving and finishing of the rest is up to passengers on the Train of Thought and participants at the TRACKS Symposium stops along the way.
It is our hope that these boots arrive at their final destination with fibres from across the country intertwined.
A symbolic gesture of weaving our coastlines together, of uniting us in what we all ultimately share. A connection to the traditions of these weaving techniques that cross all cultures, to the plants we find around us- regardless of where we as humans or the plants themselves originally hail from, we grow here together and mutual respect and compassion is the only successful way forward for all of us.
The boots have had an incredible journey, from beginning here in Vancouver with Rebecca’s mastery of the diagonal plait, to on-board weaving activity.
Eslhalha7kwhiws- I practice saying that now under my breath as I walk around the plants I tend, breathing the language of this place back to the plants- even with my clumsy tongue- seems only right.
The Train of Thought is now in Halifax… I can only imagine the intensity of that trip for people fortunate enough to be involved. Happily, I have gotten a few updates from people on board working on the boots, harvesting at the 20 stops. I will be reunited with the boots and shoes when I am in Toronto in late August and we will figure out a good home for them where they can live as a legacy of the project. They have come so far while Rebecca and I are absent- the ultimate in getting out of the way perhaps- was staying on the platform, and having the work have its own journey, others taking up where we left off. Heaps of gratitude to Annie Louise Smith for being a fabulous steward of the weaving, for documenting, and to everyone else who participated.
With awareness of the serendipity, I documented the shoes where we made them before the train, at the Roundhouse- where the train historically changed direction and headed back east. The train is so tied up in how this country was colonized. Like the train shift in direction, I am hopeful this is a part of marking where the tides of colonialism truly change, building tracks for our new ways of working together: collaboratively and with respect.